By Mallory Rickbeil
One of the very first things Dustin Rathgeber said to me was, “my family has been farming in the Southern hills of Indiana for the past five generations!” He caught me off guard. At that time I was five months in as the ‘Community Wellness Coordinator’ for the nearby Extension Office, and, in a word, I was finding the transition “difficult.” Also, at that exact time, I was struggling to set up a projection screen in a tiny stone building on the East Side of Humphrey’s Park.
I should back up and tell you that the meeting in question, happened on Thursday, April 28th 2016 at 6pm. I know this because I have it saved in my calendar as the ‘Pre-Season Vendor Meeting’ for the Linton Farmers’ Market. Dustin was the first person to arrive. Mark and Joanne Stacy and myself were half setting up, half freaking out that nobody was at the meeting quite yet. This happened three years ago at a time when a very small group of just Mark, and Joanne and I would meet almost weekly to cobble together a new aspect of the Farmers’ Market that we didn’t really have the help, resources or capacity to launch successfully.
Looking back, it makes sense that Dustin would start a conversation with me, a total stranger, this way. Dustin was an amazing storyteller. He was able to use common beginnings of a routine, just-to-be-polite conversation and draw in his audience with a friendly smile and enthusiasm that suggested you were the most important person in the room, if not the wold. Dustin was just naturally so open, and inquisitive, and engaged with what was going on around him. He was so generous, and it seemed as if there wasn’t a situation in which he would ever reach the point of “I can’t even with you right now,” something he often laughed at me for saying.
Perhaps I was just caught up in my head, but that is all I seem to recall of my first meeting with him. Now what stands out to me most was the day I just-for-shits asked him if he had ever thought of starting a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Program. Or the day that I called Dustin in a panic because I left an Greene County Event Center Banquet Chair at the Bloomfield Farmers’ Market- and drove home to Bloomington before I remembered I needed that chair for the Linton Farmers’ Market happening the very next day. Over the course of the next three years, Dustin and I would start and grow the greatest organic, yet affordable, CSA program in Bloomington, eventually serving 30 clients weekly and selling wholesale to my favorite fine local restaurants. Most recently, Dustin and I would have hour-long brainstorming sessions about the grants we were writing and how we planned to gather the data needed to show success once our proposal was funded. At the time of his death, Dustin and I almost had another sold-out CSA season to plan for, and he was growing the cold season vegetables (lettuce, turnips, beets, carrots, honey, eggs) for my farm-to-table wedding reception in mid-May.
Over the course of the three years between then and now- I became much better at my job, serving the rural Community of Greene County. I learned the importance of getting out and talking to every person you possibly can, or the immense value of remembering every single person’s name before leaving, and I gained insight into how and why it is so important to never compromise on your values. I learned how to face myself for all of the times I had unfairly built expectations for others as a means to use my eventual resentment to keep them from knowing the real me, I learned how to build a website (a Squarespace website, BUT STILL!!), I even wrote a blog post from the perspective of Baloo, the faithful farm dog. In each instance, Dustin was always there to share a laugh, to affirm me for my efforts and say, “I couldn’t do this without you,” and to try, and to work hard, and to be creative, and believe in me, and to still care about the people in the community who for whatever reason didn’t have enough good, fresh, healthy food to eat.
I didn’t become better at my job despite all of the time spent working on the not-totally- part of my job-description projects with Dustin, but I became better at my job BECAUSE of my not-totally-part-of-my-job description projects with Dustin.
In the wake of his death, I feel as though I am sprinting, full speed, into a wall of grief. I miss him so intensely, that sometimes it feels that a well has formed in my chest. I am afraid that once spring arrives, and it really sinks in that “our” (he always used to say that even though it was very much untrue) upstarting agribusiness is no longer a possibility; that there will be absolutely nothing about me that can excel in the way that I did at showcasing how amazing of a person Dustin Rathgeber was.
But I have to remember that above all, Dustin believed in me, and, when I put myself out there, and stopped over-thinking it and anticipating my eventual failure— I was actually charismatic, and driven, and relentless, and yes, even computer savvy. It may be premature to say this, but I feel like the qualities that I loved the most about Dustin are starting to materialize in how I see myself. When I stop and pause and reflect upon our odd and special friendship, I know that Dustin’s spirit is always with me.
Before I go, I’ll leave you with this. This past summer, on August 27th (again, I know this because of my Outlook calendar) it was one of those breezy late summer days when the heat and humidity had finally relented and working outside wasn’t exceptionally miserable. I had been crouched for an hour or so in a patch of teeny-tiny tomatoes that Dustin was letting me collect for the Jasonville Food Pantry. Dustin was about twenty feet ahead of me, collecting what he needed for his early-week sales. As I stood up and looked around from my vine patch, a cool breeze passed overhead and hit me at the moment I was overlooking the Southern hills of Indiana. I was struck by how peaceful, and inexplicably awesome, and full of light everything seemed in that one moment. For as long as I possibly can, I will hold that perfect moment in my heart and hope that Dustin’s spirit has found a place as perfect as that.